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Forever Guantánamo

Perhaps the most controversial issue is whether “aggressive interrogation techniques,” as the administration prefers to call what many would describe as torture, have in fact prevented terrorist attacks. Members of the administration, and some journalists, assert that they have. “The CIA could point to a string of successes and dozens of plots that were rolled up because of coercive interrogation techniques,” the Washington journalist Ronald Kessler asserts in The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack.

But specific details in such accounts about plots that have been thwarted through such methods have been thin, if not entirely lacking. For example, Kessler cites the case of Abu Zubaydah, a close associate of Osama bin Laden who is one of the two detainees subjected to severe interrogation techniques in sessions recorded on videotapes which were destroyed by the CIA in 2005. “If it had not been for coercive interrogation techniques used on Abu Zubaydah, CIA officials suggest, the second wave of attacks might have occurred and KSM [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] could be free and planning more attacks,” he writes (italics added). This sharply qualified justification for torture is far from the definitive assertion in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial that “we know that the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah led to the capture of KSM, and to the foiling of an active terrorist plot against the United States”(italics added).5

A quite different, and fuller, account of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation is provided in The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind, another Washington-based journalist. When Abu Zubaydah was captured in March 2002, after being shot during a rooftop chase in Faisalabad, Pakistan, Bush, Cheney, and Rice all declared, and repeatedly, that Zubaydah was al-Qaeda’s chief of operations, the number-three man in the organization. But as Suskind writes, one of the most knowledgeable al-Qaeda experts in the FBI, Dan Coleman, had studied Zubaydah’s diaries and determined that this conclusion is unsupported and that “this guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.” Similarly, a CIA official had also found that “the guy had psychological issues.” Both these intelligence experts decided that Zubaydah’s position in al-Qaeda was not very important. He was more like a travel agent, they suggested, arranging travel for the wives and kids of al-Qaeda operatives.

Still, Zubaydah was waterboarded (as Hayden admitted in his recent testimony), bombarded with loud noise and light, and, according to Suskind and subsequent newspaper accounts, he was denied the pain-relief medication he needed for the injuries sustained in his capture.6 None of this is mentioned by Kessler. Under such pressure, Abu Zubaydah told his interrogators that al-Qaeda was targeting shopping mails, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, and apartment buildings. Federal and local police were sent to investigate the plots he confessed to. They came up with nothing.

I asked a top FBI official recently if any plots had been thwarted by what had been learned from Abu Zubaydah or any other detainee. “Not to my knowledge,” he said. A senior intelligence official from one of America’s closest allies had the same response when I talked with him. The interrogations of Zubaydah and other al-Qaeda members provided a better understanding of the al-Qaeda structure and network, he told me, but they didn’t directly stop any attacks. He also noted that after six months, at most, a detainee loses just about all intelligence value. By that time, every terrorist he might have named has gone underground, and any plots that might have been in planning will have been scuttled.

Could the same information have been extracted from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and the others without torture? The FBI agents I have talked to say yes, that the agency does not resort to physical abuse to gain information. The important thing is to build a rapport with the suspect, FBI agents say. And every one of them has a weakness—money, gain, sex, megalomania.7

Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the five other alleged terrorists recently charged will be reinterrogated by the FBI, without coercive methods. The point of this is to reconstruct in a “clean” manner the information obtained from the earlier coercive CIA interrogations so as to provide evidence that can be admitted in court.8 There is still the large problem, of course, that the men may have already become fearful of further torture if they don’t cooperate.

Even Kessler acknowledges that the FBI can gain information without torture. The agent interrogating Abu Zubaydah told him that the FBI knew that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. “How did you know he was the mastermind?” Abu Zubaydah replied. The agent didn’t know at the time. It was a ruse that worked. “He tricked him,” the agent told Kessler.

One thing Kessler and Suskind agree on is that Zubaydah gave his CIA interrogators the name of Jose Padilla, and that Padilla had been ordered by al-Qaeda to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States. If this were true, then it could be said that a plot was stopped through harsh interrogations: Padilla was arrested in May 2002, as he stepped off a plane in Chicago. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft interrupted a trip to Moscow to announce triumphantly to the world: “We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive ‘dirty bomb.’”

But the case fell apart. Padilla was charged neither with a plot to detonate a dirty bomb nor with any plan to carry out a terrorist attack in the United States. As an American citizen, he was tried in a federal court and convicted of “conspiracy” to participate in Islamic wars overseas, and of providing financial support to terrorists, who the government said had fought in countries such as Chechnya and Bosnia. He was never charged with plotting to carry out any attacks in the United States. The government asked for a sentence of thirty years to life. In January 2008 he was sentenced to seventeen years in prison. Padilla’s accomplice, according to the US government, was Binyam Mohamed, a tall, lanky Ethiopian who ended up at Guantánamo. He became one of Clive Stafford Smith’s clients, and a good portion of Stafford Smith’s Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side is devoted to his case.


Binyam Mohamed had lived in the United States for a few years as an adolescent and later became a British resident. He was picked up in Pakistan in April 2002, when he was seized by immigration authorities at the Karachi airport with a false passport. He said his own passport had been stolen, and he had been given one by a British friend. He had gone to Afghanistan in mid-2001, he said, to cure his drug addiction—the Taliban had a strict anti–drug use policy (though they cultivated poppy seeds for export). American officials say he trained at several al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and he was eventually charged in November 2005 with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, including exploding a “dirty bomb,” blowing up gas tankers, and spraying people with cyanide in nightclubs.9

After being seized in Pakistan, Binyam was first held at a detention center in Karachi, where he was interrogated by four people claiming to be from the FBI, though it is more likely that they were from the CIA—employees or contractors. The torture began, carried out by Pakistanis. “He was suspended for a week by a leather strap, required to soil himself more often than he was allowed to the toilet, lapsing into a semi-sleep, standing up,” Stafford Smith writes. Each day, the Americans would return for more interrogation.

Three months later, the CIA secretly spirited him to Morocco, according to Binyam and to logs of the CIA’s chartered airplanes.10 “Academic discussions on the definition of torture were about to become moot,” Stafford Smith writes. The interrogators included a blue-eyed blonde in her early to mid-thirties, who gave her name as “Sarah” and said she was from Canada. (She sounds like the same woman Habib describes, but her identity remains unknown. Presumably congressional investigators could find her.) The guards put drugs in his food, he said, turned up the volume on the sex videos they were watching during his prayers, and brought naked women into his cell. One day, according to Binyam, four Moroccans came into his cell, hanged him on a wall, and cut off his clothes. Then, with a scalpel, they made cuts on his chest and penis. His accounts of torture have not been confirmed, and presumably no one except a doctor who treated him in Morocco and personnel at Guantánamo have seen any scars; but Binyam told Stafford Smith that there were six Americans who witnessed the injuries, either at the interrogation or on the CIA flight that took him from Morocco to Cuba, and that a woman soldier took photos. (Shouldn’t Congress try to find those?)

Binyam says that in order to end the torture, he told the interrogators whatever he thought they wanted to hear. Among other things he told them that on the evening before he and Padilla were to depart for the United States in 2002, they were given a farewell dinner in Karachi with Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, Abu Zubaydah, Sheikh al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda military operative, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh.

Stafford Smith finds it hard to accept “the notion that four of al-Qaeda’s top six leaders congregated in one room in Karachi, a thousand miles by road from the al-Qaeda hideouts in Peshawar, simply to bid au revoir to Binyam and Padilla.” Moreover, the account is clearly inaccurate since by the time the alleged meeting took place, Abu Zubaydah and al-Libi were already in US custody.

Stafford Smith, a dual British-American citizen who once represented death-row inmates in the American South, was one of the first lawyers to sign up to represent men being held in Guantánamo. He now represents more Guantánamo prisoners than any other lawyer. Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side is a valuable addition to the growing number of books about the “war on terror.”11 It is, of course, written from the defense point of view, but it is not a polemic, and it sustains a sense of the absurdity of much that happened. An FBI agent, for example, said in an affidavit that he had learned something from Binyam’s wife. But Binyam wasn’t married. “We concluded that the FBI must believe in arranged marriages,” Stafford Smith writes, and had arranged one for Binyam. But the severe restrictions placed on Stafford Smith have serious implications. He cannot, for example, tell us what is in Binyam’s confession. He said he reviewed hundreds of pages of documents obtained through discovery, and under the military rules he is forbidden to tell us what is in them.

Stafford Smith advised Binyam that when he appeared before the military tribunal he should represent himself. “His words, not mine, were going to be published by the media,” Stafford Smith writes. Binyam understood. His military commission hearing transcript, as reported by Stafford Smith, reads like a script for a farce. First comes the matter of Binyam’s last name, which has been spelled several ways on different government documents. Therefore, Binyam tells the judge, a Marine Corps colonel named Ralph Kohlmann, that the government is prosecuting a wrongly identified defendant. “Four years of—what do you call it?—enhanced torture techniques, and we have the wrong person in court.” Finally, he says, “Call me Count Dracula.”

Binyam repeatedly interrupted Colonel Kohlmann, and at one point said it was not a military commission, but a “con-mission,…a mission to con the world.” He then held up a sign he had made with the words CON-MISSION, and showed it to the journalists. Kohlmann said he could not allow that. Binyam demanded to know what in the rules forbade him to show his sign. Kohlmann said he could establish the “rules of court for the conduct of these proceedings, OK?” To which Binyam replied, “OK, so we have a new rule, ‘No more signs in the court?’”

The hearing lasted several hours, and has not resumed. Binyam is still at Guantánamo, the last British resident still detained there, more than a dozen having been released at the request of the British government. Over objections from the British government, which has never supported the military commissions, the Pentagon is preparing to file charges against Binyam, Stafford Smith told me recently.


Civil liberties have not been a big issue in the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns, and are not likely to be; there are probably few votes in standing up for the rights of suspected Muslim terrorists.

The leading presidential candidates—Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Senator Barack Obama—have all said that torture is wrong (not many would disagree), that waterboarding is not permissible, and that they would close Guantánamo. But their voting records show clear differences. Clinton and Obama voted against the 2006 Military Commissions Act, which authorized the intelligence services to use “enhanced interrogation” methods and denied habeas corpus to terrorism suspects. McCain voted for it. Before he began his campaign for president, McCain was an effective voice against torture, having survived five years being tortured at the hands of the North Vietnamese. His general approach was that the United States should treat captives in the manner it wants its soldiers treated when they are captured.

But since he needs the conservative vote, McCain has moved from those positions. In mid-February, he voted against the Intelligence Authorization Act for 2008, which sought to make it illegal for the CIA and other intelligence agencies to use interrogation techniques that are forbidden by the US Army field manual. (Both Clinton and Obama did not vote.) The bill passed, but President Bush vetoed it in March. Like McCain and Obama, Clinton has said that she favors closing Guantánamo, but she has not made it a major campaign theme. Only Obama makes a point in his speeches that he would restore habeas corpus for Guantánamo prisoners. It generally brings loud applause.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the issue is not going to go away. There are still hundreds of prisoners held without charge at Guantánamo, and it will in all likelihood be left to the new administration to deal with them. Until it does so, the United States will maintain its reputation as a country that has flouted the basic principles of justice and set a deplorable example for the world.

—March 18, 2008

  1. 5

    Editorial, “Tall Torture Tales,” The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2008.

  2. 6

    See David Johnston, “At a Secret Interrogation, Dispute Flared over Tactics,” The New York Times, September 10, 2006. In State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (Free Press, 2006), James Risen suggests that Bush may have ordered the pain-killing medication to be withheld as a way to put pressure on Zubaydah to talk.

  3. 7

    For a convincing account of how an FBI agent used “persistence and persuasion, not…threats or violence,” to get an al-Qaeda member to confess and become a valuable witness in the trials of the men charged, and convicted, for their role in the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Africa, see Jane Mayer, “Junior,” The New Yorker, September 11, 2006.

  4. 8

    US to Try 6 on Capital Charges over 9/11 Attacks,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2008.

  5. 9

    Official Department of Defense charge sheet, United States of America v. Binyam Ahmed Muhammad, available at www.defenselink.mil/news/commissions_exhibits_muhammad.html.

  6. 10

    See Stephen Grey, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program (St. Martin’s, 2006), pp. 45–61. The book was reviewed in these pages, January 11, 2007.

  7. 11

    See William Glaberson, “Guantánamo, Evil and Zany in Pop Culture,” The New York Times, February 18, 2008. Guantánamo has become “an irresistible subject,” Glaberson says, and, not surprisingly, nearly all the novels, plays, movies, as well as nonfiction, use it as a symbol of malevolent policy incarnate.

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